Though in his nineties, Joseph "Mighty Atom" Greenstein could still break chains, bend bars and drive spikes through two-inch planks plus 29 layers of iron.
Dr. Terry ToddThe Architecture of Big Arms
Part One: The Forearms
by Terry Todd & Paul Anderson (1972)
For some reason, the strength and muscular development of the lower arm, wrist, and hand occupies among aficionados of the iron game a place of honor and importance far out of proportion to the size of the area of the body it occupies. Our physiognomy from elbow to fingertip seems to be a relatively insignificant section of the body when it is compared with the muscle mass of the thighs, hips, upper back, chest, shoulders or upper arms. Be that as it may, the aura of power that emanates from a pair of fully fleshed forearms is a thing which separates a Man from other men, a thing which stamps a man with the stigma of strength, a thing which communicates in a nonverbal yet clear way that the man from whose elbows they swell is a man to be reckoned with.
Perhaps this attitude is a residue of the centuries which much of man’s work involved physical tasks which were made easier by hands and arms which were strong instead of weak – tireless instead of easily fatigued. Or perhaps it stems from the same source as the insight common to seasoned Olympic lifters who can tell more about a rival’s condition and ability by a glance a his lower back than they can by checking out other areas such as the chest or arms and shoulders, by which a novice lifter or a non-lifter might tend to judge a man. The latter explanation seems to me to be most helpful in understanding the awe and admiration that accrue to a man with mighty mitts and fearsome forearms. It’s a matter of knowing where to look, and those who know realize that lower arms which are both large and strong result from a combination of knowledge and diligence. With this article, we offer you a real forearm bargain. We’ll supply the knowledge if you’ll supply the diligence.
Over the years, many articles have been written contending that one or two sets or wrist curls done a couple of times a week will give you great forearms and a crushing grip. But, as Sportin’ Life says in Porgy and Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so.” For a few men, gifted with thick wrists and unusually good hand leverage, a simple program of exercise will be sufficient to promote excellent size and strength, but for the rest of humanity the answer is not so simple. However, those of you with small hands and slender wrists should not despair, for often the greatest of arm and grip champions have had the same handicaps. Charles Vansittart, who could rip three decks of cards apart, was slender-wristed. John Davis, the great American Olympic lifter, had hands so small he was barely able to encircle an Olympic bar, but he was thick in his forearms and magnificently strong in his fingers. Joe “The Mighty Atom” Greenstein is the possessor of frail wrists and diminutive hands, but the heavy-handed bulls of our sport would be hard put to duplicate his horseshoe and bar bending feats. The names of small handed and small boned men who have become powerfully developed from the elbow down are many, but the few that have been listed should suffice to prove that it can be done.
To put it simply, great size and strength of wrist and fingers can be had only by a combination of proper, varied exercise and regularity of training. It is purely and plainly a matter of hard work but, after all, how many worthwhile things can a man possess that are not won by the blend of perseverance and perspiration that we know as hard work?
To get into some of this “hard work,” suppose we start with some feats of tearing.
1.) Magazines, newspapers and telephone books. Any of these items can serve to practice tearing. Old magazines and newspapers are much easier to obtain than telephone books, and the ripping of them is an excellent exercise for the thumbs and fingers. Tear them with as many different grips as you can dream up.
2.) Decks of Cards. This parlor trick should be reserved for exhibitions and special occasions for the obvious reason of expense. You can practice this feat by using cardboard cut into the size of a playing card. Attempt to invent a different methods by which to tear them.
3.) Beverage Cans. This is a dangerous trick and should be avoided unless gloves are worn, and even then it should be done with caution. First, bend the can double and then, grasping the ends with your hands, attempt to twist and tear it in half.
4.) License Plates. This is a feat in the repertoire of only a few of the world’s strongest men, but for those of you who are ambitious, here’s something to work for. To practice for this, bend the plate in the center and work it back and forth until you have weakened it enough so that you can tear it. As you practice, you should attempt to bend them fewer times before tearing them and eventually, perhaps you can tear one without a bend.
From tearing, we move into the area of twisting and bending, which is related to the above-mentioned feats in muscle action, but which affords some novel, interesting methods of developing and testing hand and wrist strength and development.
1.) Bottle-Caps. These should be straightened before an attempt is made at bending them if they have been crimped by the bottle opener. The easiest method is to place the cap between your forefinger and thumb and then bend it by thumb pressure. It is said that Mac Batchelor, the California strongman-bartender, once bent a beer bottle cap in the above manner after some prankster friends of his had slipped a dime under the cork.
2.) Beverage Cans. These cans, which are easily (and sometime enjoyably) obtained, offer excellent means for finger strengthening. There are several different ways in which they can be bent, both one-handed and two-handed. Practice will bring quick proficiency at this trick. It can be made competitive by giving two or more men the same number of cans and seeing who can bend theirs in the shortest time.
3.) Beverage Can and Bottle Openers. Doubtless everyone is familiar with this type of opener. They can be bent and broken by a strong-handed man. Since they have one fairly sharp end, it is not a bad idea to either wrap the ends in cloth or wear gloves. Attempt to bend and break these with whichever grip feels most comfortable. When done correctly, this can be a very impressive stunt.
5.) Spikes and Nails. Throughout the years, strongmen and spike-bending have always been closely identified with each other. Perhaps the chief reason for this is that a spike or a nail is something with which the general public is well-acquainted. This familiarity of the public allows them to be appreciative of the power involved in nail and spike-bending. Just as there is a barbell for every strength, so is there a nail, even if you must start with a straight pin. If you begin with short nails, get two short pieces of pipe to fit over the ends of the nail and this will increase your leverage and enable you to build the strength to work up to railroad spikes.
5.) Iron Bars and Rods. These can be bent in a similar manner to nails and spikes, except that bars and rods can be had in much greater lengths. This makes possible the feat of bending the bar or rod into many different shapes, such as the letters of the alphabet. Some strongmen would take a rod several feet in length in one hand and bring it down across the opposite forearm with such force that it would bend around the arm. Although somewhat violent, this is an impressive stunt, but not as conductive to the development of wrist strength and forearm size and the two-handed twisting and bending of these rods. Until your hands become accustomed to the roughness of these rods, gloves should be worn.
6.) Horseshoes. Bending a horseshoe is somewhat akin to a clean & jerk of 400 pounds, and it makes me think of what my grandfather said to me after he had smashed the shell of a hard-shell pecan between his thumb and forefinger, “Very few men and no boys can do that.” This is a tremendously impressive feat of shoulder, chest, arm, wrist and finger strength. When attempting to bend horseshoes, and for that matter any type of iron, remember that the pressure you exert creates fiction and this friction creates the heat which allows the metal to bend. So, with this in mind, you can see that it often will take a few seconds for the bend to begin. If you want to break the nail, spike, bar, rod or horseshoe you are bending, this can be done (if you’ve got the mitts) by rapidly bending and straightening the piece of metal you are attempting to break. The friction created by this will eventually break the metal at the point of the bend, but often the entire piece will become too hot to hold, so gloves should be worn. We are told that John Grun Marx could break a horseshoe in well under a minute.
Leaving the area of stunts, we will examine some exercises that will be developmental, both to gripping power and to forearm girth.
1.) Using Hand Grippers. These little devices can be very beneficial. First get a pair that you can’t squeeze more than 15 or 20 times, and then continue working with them until you can do 30 or 35, after which you get a stronger set that cuts you back to 15 or 20 etc. Another interesting trick is to squeeze the handles together with a dime held by the base of the handles. Time yourself and see how long you are able to hold the dime before your grip tires.
2.) Snatching. Cleaning. High Pulling, and Deadlifting without using a “hook” grip or straps. Any of these exercises, if performed with a simple, overhand grip, will thicken and strengthen the fingers and forearms. A simple but effective way to blend this technique in with your regular workout is to merely work as high as you can in any of the above-mentioned exercises before resorting to a hook grip or straps.
3.) Pinch Gripping. This exercise works the works the fingers and thumb in an unusual way, and it is not odd to see some men who will excel in pinch gripping but be only average in regular gripping feats and vice versa. Excellent competition can be had, not only by determining who can pinch the greatest weight, but by determining who can hold a given weight the longest time.
4.) Lifting Weights with Different Fingers. This type of exercise, in which often only one finger is used, is a superb way of building up a tenacious grip. The great German strongman, Hermann Goerner, practiced this quite often as a means of strengthening his digits so that they could hold the massive weights his back was capable of hoisting in the deadlift. As you will realize if you think about it for a minute, there are many, many different ways of performing this type of strengthening exercise. This can be done in chinning, as well as in the lifting of the barbell and dumbells.
5.) Using Thick-handled Dumbells and Barbells. As these are hard to acquire these days, the simplest method to use is to wrap tin foil or tape around the bar where it is gripped. In this way any desired thickness can easily be achieved. After a few workouts with these thick bars you will quickly realize where the old-timers got those thick, rope-muscled lower arms.
6.) Isometric Squeeze. The beauty of this exercise is that you need nothing but something to grab and a little determination. You should attempt to sustain the squeeze for ten to fifteen seconds. The only drawback to this type of exercise is that it’s not too interesting, since you can’t measure your progress. If you can get hold of a grip dynamometer, your problems are solved. A bathroom scale can serve as a testing ground, but a dynamometer is greatly superior because the needle stops at the highest mark registered during the squeeze.
Leaving the area of pure gripping power of the hand, we will now look at a few exercises that are mainly wrist and forearm strengtheners and developers.
1.) Using a Leverage Bar. A leverage bar can be almost anything. Grab an empty bar a little off center and you’ve got a leverage bar. Use this type of exercise in any way your inventive little mind can dream up – the more ways you find to lever the greater you will benefit.
2.) Supinated, or Underhanded, Wrist Curls. Using the normal curl grip, pick up a barbell, sit on a bench, and rest your forearms on your thighs. Use a weight in this exercise that only allows you to do 15 to 20 repetitions. After you have squeezed out the very last rep, hold the bar with straight wrists as long as you can. This exercise, done with regularity, will do wonders for the underside of your forearm. You might vary this exercise occasionally by using a lighter weight and allowing the bar to roll down into your fingertips on each repetition, but for a combination of size and power, it’s the same old story – you can’t beat those heavy weights.
3.) Pronated, or Overhanded, Wrist Curls. This exercise is sadly neglected, but it can add bulk and strength to the many muscles on the top of the forearm. Once again, use a weight that will stop you after 15 or 20 repetitions.
4.) Wrist Roller. This is an old, but valuable, forearm exercise that will “pump” your forearm more than any other movement. However, don’t make the beginner’s mistake of measuring the worth of an exercise by the amount of pump achieved. To get the maximum benefit out of this exercise, stand on a bench, hang your arms straight down, and then use a weight you can roll up only two or three times.
All of the exercises and feats of strength mentioned in this article can help you achieve a greater grip and forearm. Their practice will not only help you in the performance of your regular exercises, but they will make you more successful in any of the hand-to-hand strength games, such as arm wrestling, finger twisting, gripping and finger pulling (hackling). Of course, these hand-to-hand contests are very beneficial in themselves in the molding of a might hand and forearm, but the many exercises and stunts listed before are necessary not only for success in these games but also to toughen the fingers and lower arm so as to avoid injury.
As you can see, there are so many ways to develop and display the strength of the hand that we could write the whole magazine full and never cover everything. It should be sufficient to say that the exercises and stunts listed, if done with diligence, concentration and regularity, will be more than enough to build lower arms of which Vulcan himself would be proud.